What is sprouting this spring on the Denver art scene? This past month, the botanical illustrations of Susan Rubin were on display at the Spark Gallery, in the Santa Fe art district. This area, along one of the oldest stretches of road in the west, recently experienced urban renewal and has grown to become one of Denver's hippest new cultural scenes. The gallery, one of the oldest installations in the area, is the perfect fusion of classic southwest and contemporary art. Outside, the stucco walls have been painted a deep grey, while the indoor space is light, open and airy. The setting was a perfect backdrop for Susan's latest show, Bloom!, which featured graphite drawings of blossoms.
These botanical illustrations not only represent a scientific sense of accuracy, but also hint at an aesthetic sense of beauty found in many aspects of life. Roughly a dozen of Susan's drawings were on display, ranging in size from petite square drawings, measuring only a few inches per side, to relatively larger works, which were nearly a foot per side. This provided adequate space for the flowers, sometimes shown with exaggerated scale. Susan, who cut each of her wood frames by hand, painted them in a graphite-like shade of grey. This gave the frames a metallic feel, and offered a pleasing transition for the eye from the stark white walls of the gallery, to the rich monochrome detail in the drawings.
Accurate details are Susan's specialty. Botanical illustration, which Susan teaches at the Denver Botanic Gardens, has roots in science. Before genetics could be used to identify or classify a species, anatomical illustrations were invaluable. Drawings which featured precise and accurate details were of the utmost importance to botanists. Today, botanical illustrations are seen not only as visual references, but as works of fine art. Like those who set these standards, centuries ago, Susan Rubin draws her figures from real life. Why not just use a photograph? She finds photos to be too "flat"--drawing a plant live allows her to see many aspects which might be hidden in a single shot. Susan's technique relies on a study of values in the garden, using photos only in case a bloom fades too quickly. Working in the garden sometimes provides unexpected opportunities to capture life in action. For instance, one of her works showed a bee which posed on the blossom she was sketching, Asdepias syriaca (Milkweed). The presence of the bee brought a normally still work buzzing to life.
Of course, botanical illustration is a study on life, itself. Susan's various works were reminiscent of various aspects of life, such as the need to eat, or the need to reproduce. Her artichoke-like Aechmea fasciata (Silver Vase Bromeliad) looked vaguely its cousin, the pineapple, but was also reminiscent of human bodies intertwined. Meanwhile, the small drawing of an Orchid (phalaenopsis sp.) provoked a big reaction. The orchid, whose petals resemble genitalia, looked either erotic or alien, depending on your perspective. To Susan, who jokingly referred to the show as "plant porn", this was no accident. Flowers were naturally selected, by nature, to be attractive. By charming bees into to carrying their pollen, or even humans into to consuming their seeds, the blossoms guarantee a plant's survival for generations to come.
Using precise anatomical detail to offer an intimate experience with a plant, Susan's works are prime examples of botanical illustration. Yet, some have considered her work to be too edgy for the traditional botanical illustration community. Originally, botanical works were used to classify plants, such as the hand-colored book plates which Linnaeus used in the 18th century. This generally required the whole plant to be accurately represented in the image. Some of Rubin's forms defy this rule, running off the edge of the page.
By going off the page, Susan is able to share new levels of detail. In Papaver orientale (Poppy) the petals, which are typically the focus of a blossom drawing, provided a muted background for a glorious cluster of seeds. The seeds are drawn with precision, each seed an individual study on values. Meanwhile, the background of petals is sparse, with white space shaped by light curving lines which flow off the page. The scarlet hues have faded; the lure of the blossom is gone. In its place we find a cluster of new birth. Each seed is a new flower, waiting to be born.
Using soft shading techniques contrasted with delicate attention to detail, Susan Rubin shares both an informative study on life and a love of nature. The gorgeous examples of botanical illustration on display at the Spark Gallery were a refreshing sight, the perfect excursion for a spring day. While the Bloom! exhibit has closed at the Spark Gallery, it has been on display since April 7th at the Wildlife Experience in Parker.
All images courtesy of Susan Rubin.
I always enjoy seeing new examples of botanical art! Thanks!